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First Examples of Lincolns Were Hoarded
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
February 26, 2014

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The 1909 Lincoln cent probably tops the popularity chart. Millions of Lincoln cents were on hand when they became available in the summer of 1909. Within days the stockpile was depleted.

Considering the Indian Head cent had been around for half a century and was well-liked, the Lincoln cent’s success was a remarkable achievement, even if there were a few snags along the way.

It took President Theodore Roosevelt’s forceful personality, Victor D. Brenner’s considerable skill as an engraver and the nation’s respect for Abraham Lincoln to make the new cent a hit.

While posing for a medal for Panama Canal workers, Roosevelt admired a Lincoln plaque by Brenner and commissioned him to design a cent honoring the forthcoming 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

Brenner adapted the obverse portrait from his Lincoln plaque, which in turn was based on a photograph. The wheat ears reverse paid tribute to an important crop in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois.

Press coverage of preparations to strike Lincoln cents was unprecedented. So was demand for the coins when they were released in August 1909.

The Mint did its best to be ready for the big event, but it was not enough. Distribution of the first Lincoln cents was uneven across the country. Supplies were limited or, in some areas, non-existent. The Aug. 18, 1909, issue of the Waterloo Daily Courier said:

“The Waterloo Savings Bank has received a limited supply of pennies and is distributing them to customers as souvenirs. The new pennies are wholly unlike the old Indian Head pennies except in size and color.

“The demand for them in the east has been so great that it has been possible for western banks to secure only a few, and some banks have not yet been able to secure any.…

“Bankers and those who handle coins in large numbers complain that they will not pile like the old coins and in that respect are less convenient in handling.

“Owners of slot machines in the east have also complained that the new coins do not work well in the machines.

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“The Commercial National Bank also received a supply of the pennies.”

The Lincoln cent shortage in the West was understandable. The San Francisco Mint struck fewer than half a million Lincoln cents of the original design with Brenner’s initials on the reverse. The Denver Mint would not begin striking Lincoln cents until 1910.

Trouble with Brenner’s “V.D.B.” contributed to the supply problem across the country. Because the initials were considered too prominent, cent production was suspended less than a few weeks after the Lincoln cent made its debut.

New reverse dies without “V.D.B.” were quickly prepared and cent production rebounded with an additional 72 million pieces from the Philadelphia Mint and nearly 2 million from San Francisco in 1909. But Lincoln cents were still seldom seen in circulation into 1910. An item in the New York Tribune in November 1910 said:

“Where are the Lincoln one-cent pieces? The question was asked at a subway ticket office by a man who was endeavoring to find some of the coins to reinstate himself in the good graces of a small boy whom he had promised when these coins first appeared to give all that came to him as change.

“For months, he said, he had seen none of the Lincoln pennies, and the boy had thrown out several hints which put him on the lookout, but his lack of success led him to believe that they had been withdrawn from circulation.”

Widespread hoarding and the Philadelphia Mint’s huge output help account for the ready availability of 1909 Lincoln cents today. The so-called plain version is the least expensive. The Coins price guide lists it at less than $6 in Extremely Fine-40. A 1909 V.D.B. cent in the same grade is valued at $14.

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